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Reviews of Soy Cuba

Carina Chocano, ’I Am Cuba’ "Cuba" opens a time capsule of film art.’ Los Angeles Times, Published December 23, 2005

Cinephiles who did not catch "I Am Cuba," Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 agitprop masterpiece, when it was first released in this country 10 years ago will definitely want to get out for the Milestone Films re-release of this visually stunning piece of filmmaking-slash-fascinating historical artifact. The first and only Soviet-Cuban cinematic collaboration, the film began production three years after Castro’s rise to power, during a time of unchecked revolutionary optimism. Kalatozov, writers Yevgeni Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnet, and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky (who collaborated with Kalatozov on "Cranes Are Flying") hoped it would do for the Cuban revolution what Eisenstein’s "Potemkin" did for the Russian Soviet. But the movie, which took two years to shoot, went over like a lead battleship with Soviet authorities and the Cuban movie-going public, falling into relative obscurity until it was rediscovered and screened in 1992 at the Telluride Film Festival and at the San Francisco Film Festival the following year. It has now been stripped of its clunky Russian overdub, and the English subtitles, originally taken from the Russian translation of the Spanish, have been retranslated from the Spanish with the Slavic middleman cut out.

A strange, sinuous and heartfelt tribute to a country of striking contrasts, told with all of the high-handed earnestness of ideologues in the first flush of optimism, "I Am Cuba" is remarkable not for its lessons – which are valid, but tendentious to the point of kitsch – but its ravishing technique. It is a film for movie buffs and movie makers; an exhilarating reminder of what can be achieved with a hand-held camera and some black-and-white film.

From the opening shots, in which a helicopter-mounted camera loaded with infrared film stock soars above the island, rendering its surrounding ocean ink-black and turning the fronds of the palm trees into white feathers, the film zeroes in on its subject’s stark contrasts. A place Columbus called "the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes," Cuba is shown as a resource-rich paradise riddled with poverty and economic oppression.

The villains of the story, no surprise, are the marauding American businessmen and their various enablers – roving packs of menacing sailors, wealthy Cuban landowners and the porcine dictator Fulgencio Batista, who is also given a doppelganger in the form of a murderous cop. The heroes are the guajiro peasants, the slum dwellers, the working girls and the students, who endure back-breaking labor, eke out miserable livings and take impossibly selfless, idealistic risks as big city bourgeois fat cats laugh it up on hotel rooftops.

Never have bikinis and cocktails looked more sinister, the poor so richly deserving, nor Americans uglier than in the movie’s nightmarish portrayals of the leisure classes. But it’s Urusevsky’s mostly hand-held camerawork that makes the real impression – from the five-minute tracking shot that takes in the fashion show and dives into the pool, to the simple but astonishing view of a young revolutionary slinking toward the door of a subterranean garage after having lost his nerve during an assassination attempt. Every moment of the two-hour film pulses with visual ingenuity, giving "I Am Cuba" the odd, time-capsule-ish air of what might have been had cinema not completely given itself over to computer graphics and special effects. In a sense, it’s a movie about looking past surfaces to see what’s in front of you. It takes the time to look around and discovers majesty, beauty and pathos everywhere it turns.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, "I Am Cuba", Published 13 January 2006

This quite extraordinary film was last re-released in the UK three years ago and then as now, I am baffled as to why it isn't in everyone's Top 10 lists.

Made in 1964, it is a Soviet-Cuban celluloid love letter to the Castro revolution, filmed in beautiful, pellucid monochrome. It is strident, yes, and naive, too perhaps; but lyrical and passionate and visually dazzling.

Director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky deserve medals for the bravura scenes and sequences they contrive: effortless, fluid travelling shots in the crowds, in the streets, even underwater. There's even a take in which the cameraman appears to have floated, miraculously, up into the air from a building. All long before Steadicam technology. It really is a neglected classic.

Scott Tobias, The Onion, "I Am Cuba," Published March 29, 2002

Rescued from obscurity by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba is sustained ecstasy for cinephiles, a dreamlike phantasmagoria of technique disguised as a pro-Castro propaganda film. Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying), once Stalin's head of production, was dispatched to make the film a week after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so each of its vignettes serves to reinforce Communist ideals as an answer to capitalist (primarily American) exploitation. There’s evidence that the film was viewed as impossibly na´ve at the timeŚit flopped in both the Soviet Union and Cuba – and it certainly seems that way now, but its pleasures are largely dissociated from any thematic agenda. Photographed in a B&W monochrome so rich and luxuriant that every image could be mounted on a gallery wall, I Am Cuba serves as a showcase for Kalatozov’s "emotional camera," his term for the unbroken, astonishingly elaborate handheld takes that he strings into a narrative. Working from a restored print, Milestone’s fine DVD transfer is especially useful for isolating individual shots. For example, there’s the one that starts by roving through a beauty pageant on a hotel rooftop, descends five floors to a poolside party below, and then follows a woman into water. (Paul Thomas Anderson admits to copping this shot for Boogie Nights.) Or there's the one that tracks past cigar makers on an open-air balcony, only to soar off into a gliding bird's-eye view of a martyr’s funeral procession on the streets below, as if the cameraman has somehow sprouted wings. The stories themselves – a virtuous woman forced into prostituting herself to wealthy Americans, an old sugarcane farmer who burns his land in defiance of the United Fruit Company, a college student driven by leadership in the revolution – are bluntly obvious in their intent. But I Am Cuba is still propaganda of the first order, a beautiful and sensually overwhelming tribute to the land and its people.

Jamie Russell, BBC, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964), Reviewed October 2002

Shot in 1964, when the Cold War was at its frostiest, director Mikhail Kalatozov's "I Am Cuba&quot is a blatant piece of Communist propaganda that charts the rise of the Cuban revolution with a rousing script by Russian poet Yevtushenko.

Following four separate stories – a prostitute in Havana who is mistreated by her client; a farmer who is thrown off his sugar cane fields by a greedy landowner; student revolutionaries fighting the police; and the rallying of Castro's forces in the hills – "I Am Cuba&quot shows the inevitability of the Marxist overthrow of the capitalist state.

Given its political bent, it seems surprising that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have been pivotal in rescuing this film from cinematic obscurity.

Five minutes into this amazing work and it’s obvious why they were so keen to be involved in re-releasing it – the film's politics aren't half as radical as its artistry.

From the moment the film begins – at a pool party among the skyscrapers of Havana – Kalatozov works his way through every camera angle and shooting set-up imaginable.

There's more innovation in a single sequence than in the last five years of contemporary cinema put together.

The camera gives us a kaleidoscopic vision of Cuban life, racing through sugar cane fields, gyrating around the Havana nightclubs, zooming in and out of the revolutionary struggle, ranging up and down the sides of buildings and even, in one truly jaw-dropping sequence, cruising high above a funeral procession through the city's streets.

The story may be a facilely idealistic piece of propaganda, but it's (accidentally?) subverted by Kalatozov’s love of cinema.

This rewrites the textbook of how to shoot a film.

It's a vibrant, joyous piece of technical accomplishment that's probably one of the most relentlessly innovative films you'll ever see.

Roger Ebert. Posted Dec 8, 1995. Ebert Rating: Three stars

There is a shot near the beginning of "I Am Cuba" that is one of the most astonishing I have ever seen. Reflect that it was made in 1964, long before the days of lightweight cameras and Steadicams, and the shot is almost impossible to explain.

It begins on a rooftop deck of a luxury hotel in pre-Castro Havana. A beauty pageant is in progress. The camera sinuously winds its way past bathing beauties, and then moves over the edge of the deck and descends vertically, apparently floating, down three or four stories to another deck, this one with a swimming pool. The camera approaches a bar, and then follows a waitress as she delivers a drink to some tourists, after which one of the tourists stands up and walks into the pool – and the camera follows her, so that the shot ends with the camera actually underwater.

As nearly as I can tell, this is all done in one unbroken take. How it was done, I have no idea. It is interesting not only for its technical skill, but also because it betrays a certain interest in la dolce vita that is not entirely in keeping with the movie's revolutionary, agitprop stance.

"I Am Cuba" is an anti-American propaganda film, made as a Cuban-Soviet co-production, that has been snatched from oblivion, restored, and released in the United States as a presentation of Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. Since the film's prediction of a brave new world under Fidel Castro has not resulted in a utopia for Cubans, who suffer under one of the world's most dismal bureaucracies, the film today seems naive and dated - but fascinating.

The Soviets fielded a firstclass team of advisers to help in the production. The script was co-authored by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then the USSR’s poetic superstar, and Enrique Pineda Barnet, a Cuban novelist. It was directed by the veteran Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, then 61, whose "The Cranes are Flying" (1957) had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years earlier. That film featured spectacular camera techniques, but they are upstaged by his opener in "I Am Cuba" and by some of the other sequences, which owe much to Fellini's influential "La Dolce Vita" (1960).

The movie is didactic in the best tradition of Socialist Realism. First, it shows Cuba groaning under the yoke of Yankee imperialism. Then it shows resistance, by brave farmers and heroic students. Finally, there is the appearance of a great revolutionary hero, a bearded man of the people who fights in the hills, is sheltered by peasants and represents Fidel Castro.

The anti-American content is handled in a nightclub scene, where gum-chewing Yankees ogle the prostitutes, and one amateur anthropologist announces, "I’d like to see where these women live." Against her better judgment, a girl takes the man home to her shack, where he offends her by offering to buy her crucifix. Worse, they are discovered by her fiance, a humble fruit peddler, who believed she was a virgin. This sequence, heavy on schmaltz, nevertheless has a real poignancy.

The film is not done with Americans. We see drunken American sailors chasing women through the streets, and follow the story of a hard-working peasant whose lands and home are snatched by the United Fruit Co. Rather than surrender his cane fields, he sets them afire.

Then we see the resistance: students agitating the change, including one who mimeographs propaganda pamphlets and then is shot dead, his body covered in a snow of the revolutionary sheets.

Kalatozov’s fancy shots are not limited to the opening extravaganza. There is a sequence later in the film that begins with the streets filling with demonstrators and then seemingly floats, in an unbroken take, into a high-rise cigar factory. His technique seems somewhat at odds with his purpose (you won’t find shots like these in Italian neo-realism), but then the movie itself alternates between lyricism and propaganda. Along with the scenes of evil Yankees and brave Castroites, there are astonishing helicopter shots of Cuban landscapes, and poetry and prose are read on the soundtrack (Columbus is quoted: "This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes").

The movie, now in limited distribution before a video release, is of course dated in its politics. Even its depravities and imperialist Yankee misbehavior seem quaint. But as an example of lyrical black and white filmmaking, it is still stunning. If you see it, try to figure out how the camera floated down that wall.

Cast and Credits
Maria: Betty Luz Maria Collazo
Pedro: Jose Gallardo
Alberto: Sergio Corrieri
Pablo: Mario Gonzalez Broche
Enrique: Raul Garcia

Produced And Directed By Mikhail Kalatozov. Written By Yevgeny Yevtushenko And Enrique Pineda Barnet. Running Time: 141 Minutes. No MPAA Rating (Recommended For Mature Audiences).


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